HELENA, Mont. – The Canadian province of Alberta wants to bolster its struggling population of sage grouse by relocating dozens of the chicken-sized birds from Montana, which itself is taking steps to ensure its own fragile population doesn't become endangered.
The request from the Alberta government will be taken up by Montana wildlife officials on Thursday, less than two months after the Obama administration said the greater sage grouse does not require Endangered Species Act protections in 11 states in the West.
At the same time, federal officials announced restrictions on 67 million acres of public lands to protect the bird's habitat, and states such as Montana and Wyoming announced their own conservation initiatives.
Just across the border, the situation is dire. Alberta sage grouse occupy just 10 percent of their historical range, cornered by encroaching land cultivation, energy development and grazing. Their numbers went from a high of 613 males in 1968 to just 13 in 2012, according to the province's sage grouse recovery plan.
The total population of males and females has ticked slightly up since then, and was estimated at about 100 this year.
A key strategy in the province's recovery plan is to ship 120 sage grouse across the border over the next five years from genetically similar populations in Montana. The relocation would be supplemented by researching the Canadian and U.S. populations with the goal of increasing their connectivity.
"Recent genetic work has established that Alberta sage grouse are part of a larger population that includes sage grouse in Saskatchewan and northern Montana," the plan by Alberta Environment and Sustainable Resource Development officials said.
A previous relocation was attempted in 2011 and 2012, with mixed results. Then, 38 females and three males were shipped to Alberta from Canada. Thirteen of the females in that group initiated nests and only two nests resulted in hatchlings.
A number of the translocated birds were killed by predators, Alberta officials said in the recovery plan.
But officials on both sides of the border said the pilot program showed the Montana birds could integrate with the Alberta population. Now, the Alberta government is requesting 40 females from Montana next spring, plus 40 grouse every other year until 2020.
The area the birds would be taken from in Valley and Phillips counties is 27 percent below the long-term population average, according to Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks officials. However, the population has rebounded somewhat this year and is estimated to be about 6,000 birds, including 4,000 females. Only young birds without a lek, or breeding ground, would be taken.
"The translocation project would not harm, and may help, Montana's population," FWP officials said in their recommendation to the state Fish and Wildlife Commission.
Agency officials recommended evaluating the effects of the spring relocation before committing to sending any more birds in 2018 or 2020.
If the commission endorses the proposal, an environmental assessment analyzing the program will be released to the public for comment. The commission would make a final decision in January.